Michael Knight recommends Isabella Hammad's 'The Parisian'

Michael Knight
Michael Knight
Published May 31, 2019

Knight, a professor at the University of Tennessee, has just published At Briarwood School for Girls, a coming-of-age novel set in 1990s Virginia. At its center is Lenore Littlefield, a young protagonist who moves the reader through the story while juggling several tough issues on and off the school's stage. Knight's other books include two novels, Divining Rod and The Typist, as well as the short story collections Evening Land and Dog Fight. Knight, the recipient of the 2017 Truman Capote Prize for Short Fiction and the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Excellence in Fiction, will be discussing and signing his new book at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

What's on your nightstand?

I love reading on airplanes. You are pinned to a chair with no place to go and all that white noise to block out distractions, and luckily for me, I've been traveling a lot lately and tearing through books as a consequence. I've read Rachel Cusk's Outline and Bryan Washington's Lot, both of which were wonderful. But the book that has stuck with me most completely and the one that I have recommended most often is The Parisian by Isabella Hammad, a sprawling and impossibly beautiful chronicle of the life and loves of a Palestinian expat, from his student days in Paris during World War I to his return home to his embattled native country, all the more impressive considering that the novel is a debut. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes good books. No kidding. I've already given a copy to my mother and passed it on to my most highfalutin literary friends, and they all, mother and lit snobs, have been as blown away as I was.

Your stories are universal but you do pay homage to classic Southern literature. Who have been your go-to Southern writers?

It's funny to think about it now but when I was cutting my teeth, I very much did not want to be a Southern writer. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Cheever, one of those charming, boozy Yankees. It wasn't until I discovered Walker Percy that I found a vision of the South that I connected with on a cellular level, and Percy led me back to Flannery O'Connor, that other magnificent Southern Catholic writer, who I'd read in school but wasn't ready for at the time and who I have come to worship. Then came Peter Taylor and Barry Hannah. I was late to Eudora Welty, but I'm so glad I finally arrived. These days, my favorite Southern writers, at least those who are still with us and still producing new fiction, would have to be Brad Watson (Miss Jane), Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) and Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones), all of whom, in their own unique and dazzling ways, transcend region and achieve the kind of universality that is the hallmark of the very best fiction.